This is What Anthropology Can Teach You About Business Success

Aug 22, 2017
8 Min Read
This is What Anthropology Can Teach You About Business Success

This is What Anthropology Can Teach You About Business Success


How do you drink your vodka?

That’s a question Absolut Vodka wanted to answer when they hired a research firm that was tasked with figuring out how people drink vodka and other liquors.

But researchers didn’t simply poll people about their alcohol consumption to find the answers. Instead, the researchers decided to focus on the emotional nuances of the social setting where people share alcoholic drinks.

So, they went to a party.

What they discovered from watching party-goers is this: what matters most to the attendees and their hosts were the stories that went along with the drinks. Researchers listened as people began sharing personal stories about certain brands of liquor playing a memorable role in their lives, such as during a vacation.

Based on the information gathered from those observations, researchers were able to suggest innovative ways that Absolut Vodka could become more memorable to consumers.

Using such observational methods are part of corporate anthropology, an extension of traditional anthropology that is used in non-traditional settings, explains Andrea Simon, who has a PhD in anthropology and now serves as a corporate anthropologist.

“The reason I love anthropology is because it teaches you to see, feel and think in new ways,” she says. “It’s no longer the strongest and smartest who will survive – it’s who is the most adaptive.”

Simon explains the Absolut story is a good example of how companies can use new perspectives to be more competitive.

“We (corporate anthropologists) see the things that are really happening out there in the field, not what business leaders think is going on. We look for the deeper meaning in the interactions that make up people’s lives and the objects they surround themselves with,” she says.

That’s not to say that everyone will welcome what the corporate anthropologists dig up.


Embracing change in the workplace

“The brain hates change,” she explains. “It’s going to fight you. It’s going to want your old habits to take over. It’s always trying to fit what we see and hear into what we think should be there.”

That’s why it’s so important that before the process begins, leaders must be willing to embrace change and to see and hear things differently, she says. It might even be painful as it becomes clear, for example, that a current product cannot survive as it currently is in the marketplace 10 years from now – or even next year.

“If I’m working with someone and the answer to every question is, ‘no, but…’ then I know that you can’t see what’s coming,” Simon says. “What I need for the person to do is say ‘yes, and…’ or ‘that’s a great idea.’ You’re either ready to be an outsider because of the way you think – or you’re going right back to groupthink.”


Putting anthropological practices into action

Simon, author of “On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights,” says there are several ways to put anthropological practices into action in an organization. Among them she suggests you need to:

  • Get out of the office. Forget what you think is going on with manufacturing processes or the customer experience. Simon says that many people, whether they are customers or employees, can’t express what they are doing, thinking or believing or how their culture, core values, beliefs or habits guide them in their daily lives. This is why it’s key you watch and record what you see. This helps you discover a customer’s challenges, for example, or trends they’re unequipped to handle. You may also be able to spot where customer needs are not being met.
  • Feel the pain. If you’re observing customers, where are they running into frustrations? Are they unable to get answers with a phone call or email? What questions are they asking? Do they stay with your organization or leave? If you could observe them on video, what will you discover?
  • Walk the talk. If you really want to change your thinking, you’ve got to do something different. Try shadowing customers and watching them do their work and then doing those jobs yourself. “Among other things, you may find that those whom you’re observing don’t really like the solutions they’ve come up with, but they may not have any alternatives,” she says.
  • Learn from others. If you’ve got kitchen sinks that aren’t selling well, for example, find the people who are buying and installing them. Are they willing to use their smartphones to show the problems firsthand? Ask them what they see as challenges.
  • Listen for the “what if.” Simon shares the story of one sales manager who tagged along with a salesperson to listen how patented foam insulation was being sold. A customer told how he couldn’t get certain things to work and wanted help from the company. “What if…?” the customer continually asked. It became clear to the sales manager what really mattered to the customer, which allowed the company to address the key issues for the customer.

“You have to think about things in a new way to survive,” Simon says. “If you don’t, you’re going to be an archeological ruin.”




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